Earbuds these days are as ubiquitous a piece of personal kit as slide rule in your pocket used to be (well, for us nerds anyway), and for the last few years I’ve tried quite a few. The challenge is to find just that perfect combination of fit (they stay put under most conditions), comfort, durability, noise isolation (block out most ambient noise so you can hear what’s coming from the buds clearly) , and quality sound reproduction. We can spend under $20 for a pair of earbuds that might satisfy one of those criteria, and we can easily spend hundreds of dollars in pursuit of all five.
One of the more expensive solutions for high-performance earbuds is to get them custom-fit. This traditionally means going to an audiologist to have your ears molded; they squirt silicon goo into your ears to make molds, and then ship those molds to a company to make the special earpieces, usually embedding a pair of quality buds inside the final lumps. What results, though looking strange, creates a unique and near-perfect seal so that all sound but that conducted through your skin and bone is blocked, allowing the buds themselves to recreate audio without having to compete with outside noise. This means you don’t have to turn your music or podcasts up as loud as you otherwise might, protecting your hearing and improving your listening experience.
But, as I said, this is the expensive route, costing hundreds of dollars, and usually only affordable for people using them for professional purposes. Enter Decibullz and their successful Kickstarter campaign that paved the way for customers to craft custom-fit earbuds at home for a reasonable price ($59).
So, how does it work?
Decibullz comes with a pretty standard-looking pair of earbuds that even use the normal silicon tips we’ve all seen on other units. However, they also come with a pair of special “contour molds,” pieces of a thermoplastic material that is solid at room temperature, but which becomes extremely malleable when heated up. The process is simple:
- Boil a cup of water
- Dunk the molds in the water for a couple minutes
- Take the molds out (letting them cool a little)
- Slip them onto the neck of the earbuds
- Put the silicon tips on the earbuds
- Put the earbuds on your ears
- Press the soft molds so the conform to your ear shape
With as little as 10 minutes work, you end up with perfectly form-fitting molds that, when combined with the silicon tips, achieve a level of noise isolation that equals those expensive custom-fit models. I have to say, I’m impressed by the results. I’ve had the expensive custom-fit earbuds, and the noise isolation with Decibullz is on par with their pricey progenitors. And if you don’t get them right the first time, you can even re-do the process to get them perfect.
For under $60, you can get three out of my five criteria (fit, comfort, noise isolation) where you can usually only expect one or two. What’s left unmet through, criteria-wise, is the desire for durability and quality sound reproduction. The earbuds themselves, separate from the molds, are just average inexpensive units. Sound quality is unremarkable, and in line with what you’d expect at this price point; you will hear your podcasts and music clearly, and at lower volumes, but you won’t have bass thumping your head or be able to identify individually-plucked strings (which is probably just fine for a lot of people). And with the rigorous use to which I put my earbuds, I expect these to last me a year if I’m lucky. I’d love to see these guys partner with a brand like Etymotic to put this DIY custom-fit option on some higher-quality buds, but in the end, Decibullz are about economy, and they’re definitely the best listening experience you’re going to find in the price range.